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By Mduduzi Mathuthu

PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe has rejected claims that his £5 million mansion under construction in the plush Borrowdale suburb of Harare will be funded by tax-payers.

"Come on, come on, come on, that can't be true," an agitated Mugabe said when confronted on his luxury palace in an interview with Sky News screened Monday.

"I was given the house by the party way back in 1984/85 and it was burnt. The party was to assist and we have been trying to build another one from our resources since 1986," the 80-year-old tyrant said.

Mugabe became particularly uncomfortable when Sky News reporter Stuart Rumsay asked him to respond to widespread suggestions that "you are corrupt as well."

He told the reporter that the 25-bedroomed mansion was funded partly by the Chinese and Malaysian governments.

"We agreed with the Yugoslav company Energo Project that we would provide construction material little by little and they provide labour, and they agreed," Mugabe said.

Mugabe said he had also received timber from Malaysia's former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and roofing materials from the Chinese government.

Mugabe was unapologetic for the heavy cost of the mansioin in the face of widespread poverty and unemployment in his country. "It is lavish because it is attractive," said Mugabe. "Of course it is lavish, the Chinese are doing the roofing. They are our good friends you see."

Mugabe's mansion was declared a "protected area" last month as he faced calls to disclose the source of foreign currency for exclusive imported materials being used at the mammoth project.

The designation of the area as "protected area" means access is now severely restricted and anyone who strays or is caught taking photographs might land in hot water.

The police can now legally shoot and kill anyone who strays into the area without authority as has been done at Mugabe's official residence, Zimbabwe House, where several motorists have been shot and killed over the years.

The private mansion in the suburb of Helensvale, near Borrowdale, has been under construction for the past five years and is now expected to cost more than £5 million on completion.

Apart from bricks, gravel and cement which have been sourced locally, sources say everything else at the property, particularly all the interior finishings and roofing materials have been imported from China and Europe.

The house is being built mainly by a Yugoslav company, Energo Project, though some work is subcontracted to other companies.

The project also involves the construction of two sizeable dams around the mansion and extensive landscaping work.

Mugabe has been facing calls to disclose where he has been getting the foreign currency to purchase all the imported materials for his house particularly after the arrest of his finance minister, Christopher Kuruneri.

Kuruneri is in jail after being arrested for illegally exporting foreign currency to South Africa where he is reportedly building a R30-million mansion in Cape Town.

Zimbabwe is mired in its worst foreign currency crisis after the collapse of the tobacco farming sector in the wake of Mugabe's land seizures.

A spokesman for the anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International (Zimbabwe Chapter) said in view of that background, it becomes "absolutely essential" for Mugabe to disclose where and how he has been getting foreign currency to pay for all imports for his private mansion.

Scores of manufacturing companies have folded due to lack of foreign currency to meet essential imports.

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